By 2015, Between the Buried and Me appeared to have reached a collective zenith: Their concept LP Coma Ecliptic landed at a career-best Number 12 on the Billboard 200, even raking in accolades from the non-metal press. Prog-metal fans went apeshit over the intricate storyline, which traces a coma patient's episodic voyages through a series of past lives. But singer-keyboardist Tommy Rogers was already growing antsy with basing his lyrics purely in fantasy. "With these concept records, I wasn't speaking through experience," he says. "I wanted to have an emotional connection with these stories. I wanted to set myself up to feel a little emotional when I write this stuff."
That revelation resulted in their eighth and latest album Automata: a two-part project inspired by depression, Chris Cornell's 2017 suicide, and the voyeuristic nature of fandom. The album (which will see a staggered release: Part I on March 9th, Part II in June) chronicles the nefarious deeds of Voice of Trespass, a company that broadcasts a man's dreams for entertainment — a metaphor for the vulture-like essence of celebrity culture.
"Writing this record lyrically was very stressful," he says. "Normally when I write a concept record, I plan out everything before I start diving in. Before I write a lyric, I make a timeline of what [plot point] goes to what song. This one was different. You watch these behind-the-scenes on series like Breaking Bad, and they're like, 'We had no idea where it was going to go in the next episode, but we just figured it out.' I wanted to do that. There were a lot of moments of self-doubt and self-pity and crap, but it turned out really cool because all these different layers happened that I would never have originally thought of."
The frontman spoke to Revolver about the album's dark (but ultimately hopeful) themes, his own dreams, and the "creepy" correlation between Cornell's death and Automata.
AUTOMATA IS BUILT ON A PRETTY INTRIGUING CONCEPT. WITHIN THE STORY, THE PROTAGONIST BELIEVES HIS DREAMS ARE ACTUALLY HAPPENING, RIGHT?
Yeah, he does. He kinda eventually realizes they're not real, but he accepts it and actually finds peace. Because he's, in a sense, found what he's looking for. It's basically this guy trying to find family. I originally wrote that he was looking for these physical people, but later I realized I liked the idea of those people not really existing and him searching for something he needs in his life, which I think we're all kind of doing.
YOU RECENTLY TWEETED THAT YOU WERE LISTENING TO CHRIS CORNELL. IT'S INTERESTING BECAUSE THE ALBUM DEALS WITH HOW CELEBRITY CULTURE EXACERBATES MENTAL ILLNESS AND DEPRESSION. DID CORNELL'S DEATH INFLUENCE YOUR WRITING?
The Chris Cornell thing happened while we were writing the album, and that really took the album in a new direction and influenced a lot of what I was writing. There's a moment where you get the crowd's perspective of how they've influenced this unhappiness — they've been feeding off this character for their enjoyment. This company was basically taking advantage of him, not caring, and just looking at the dollar sign. I think a lot of people can relate to that in any industry. I wanted to have all these different layers. I wanted to be able to connect with it on a personal level, so I said, "What would be a worst-case scenario for me in my life?" And instantly, it was like, "Not having my wife and my son." So I said, "OK, that's where I'm starting. The character makes up in a different world, and he's trying to find his wife and son." The second release takes a turn toward [that subject matter], diving into depression and what this guy's going through with mental illness.
SO MANY ROCK ICONS — FROM DAVID BOWIE TO CORNELL — HAVE DIED IN THE LAST COUPLE YEARS.
[David Bowie's death] affected me, but Chris really affected me. And it really, really affected my wife, and watching her deal with it … We went to his grave and stuff. I don't know, man. It's heartbreaking that people like that feel like they don't have an outlet to talk about it. In my little world, it felt good to write about it, like maybe this will open some discussions. I know it's not anything new, but I think it needs to be talked about more and more.
It was kinda creepy: Right when all those themes started creeping out in the album, [Cornell's suicide] happened. There were unintentional moments in the music where it's kinda Nineties and grunge-y, and that writing was happening right around the time [of his death]. It's tragic.
But it's just one of those things. From the outside perspective, even from my end, this guy has everything that I've wanted since I was young: He's a famous musician who does what he wants, has a family, has more money than he knows what to do with. You have this exterior that's perfection, but he was a sad dude — and there are so many people like that. I deal with anxiety and little things, but I don't deal with full-on depression, though I know people who do.
People don't talk about it a lot, but with these people who we hold on pedestals, like Chris, it's really important to know that they go through that shit. You look at comedians like Robin Williams or Chris Farley — if you don't know them, you'd never know for a million years that they're unhappy. They're just famous, rich people who obviously have fun because they're funny as hell. But there's a lot of sadness. That's something I thought a lot about, how much that can affect that person. And when something like that happens like with Chris, how much it affects other people.
WE PUT THESE TALENTED PEOPLE LIKE CHRIS ON PEDESTALS. AND WHEN A TRAGEDY LIKE THIS HAPPENS, WE'RE THE ONES WHO MOURN THEM. IT'S LIKE THIS TRAGIC CYCLE.
That's kind of what I touch on toward the end of the second album: the crowd perspective. I tried to end it on a positive note: the realization that it's happening, and the idea of, "Let's get better. Let's get more supportive of each other. Not only as actors and musicians, but just human beings." It got pretty heavy for me. But it was cool because it gave a concept record be something an emotional element.
OBVIOUSLY DREAMS ARE CENTRAL TO THE ALBUM'S THEME. DO YOU DREAM A LOT?
I don't. I never remember my dreams. Once every two weeks maybe.
WHEN I WAS A KID, I USED TO HAVE THIS REALLY VIVID RECURRING NIGHTMARE, ALMOST LIKE A BAD HORROR MOVIE, WHERE THIS RABID DOG WAS CHASING ME THROUGH MY NEIGHBORHOOD. I WOULD GET RIGHT UP TO THE FRONT DOOR, BUT I COULDN'T OPEN IT. I'D LOOK BACK, AND THE DOG WOULD JUMP AT ME, FOAMING AT THE MOUTH. AND THEN I'D WAKE UP.
I do remember I had a recurring one where I was skydiving into nothing, like without a parachute.
THE CONCEPT ALSO MADE ME THINK OF THIS DAVID LYNCH QUOTE IN THE LATEST SEASON OF TWIN PEAKS. I DON'T KNOW EXACTLY WHAT IT MEANS, BUT IT FEELS PROFOUND: "WE ARE LIKE THE DREAMER WHO DREAMS AND THEN LIVES INSIDE THE DREAM. BUT WHO IS THE DREAMER?"
I'm into Twin Peaks, but I'm way behind. Our bassist, Dan [Briggs], is really into it. I keep getting comparisons to Twin Peaks and Black Mirror, and it's all stuff I haven't really watched. [Laughs] I guess I'm just on the same wavelength as that stuff.
THE POINT OF VIEW IN THESE LYRICS SEEMS TO JUMP AROUND A LOT. WAS THAT INTENTIONAL?
It does jump around, and I did that on purpose. The beginning of each song has a time stamp, like "Night One," "Day Three," and I did that so it would help with where you are in the story. For people who do go into the lyrics, I think the second half will help pull it all together.
ONE THING STOOD OUT TO ME TOWARD THE END OF THE FIRST ALBUM. IN "BLOT," THE VOICE OF TRESPASS SAYS, "COMPUTER SIMULATION COMPLETE/EJECT THE SUSPECT." IS THE DREAMER A CRIMINAL OF SOME KIND? WHY "SUSPECT"?
Here's the thing about when I write lyrics: A lot of times, shit just pops in my head, and I think a lot of singers are like that. We can sit here all day acting like everything was planned perfectly. I could be like, "He had this past life," but "suspect" probably just sounded good, honestly. A lot of times I have a melody, and I'm writing for the melody. And this was probably one of those cases where I was like, "Yeah, that works." I didn't really put much thought into it. I knew he was a troubled, off-the-wall, odd guy, but I never thought too much about his past since I wasn't going to write about it. Honestly, I've never thought about that line until just now. A lot of lyrics are like that: Stuff just pops in, and I try to answer what they mean in interviews somehow.
A LOT OF PROGRESSIVE METAL FANS ARE OBSESSED WITH HOW BANDS BALANCE CLEAN AND HARSH VOCALS, AND THAT'S SOMETHING YOU'VE ALWAYS DONE REALLY WELL. HOW DO YOU FIND THAT BALANCE? DO YOU TEND TO JUST FOLLOW WHAT THE GUITARS ARE DOING? DO THE LYRICS, THE SHAPES OF THE WORDS YOU'RE SINGING, GUIDE YOU ONE WAY OR THE OTHER? IS IT THE INTENSITY OF THE STORY?
It really depends, and it's changed over the years. Back in the day, I would just write a shitload of lyrics and try to make it all work. On [2015's] Coma Ecliptic, because it was such a different album, I wrote lyrics as I wrote the melodies. This album, I did a little of both. There were days where I went out and wrote just to get a natural flow going, and then I'd go back and pick it apart. It just depends on how I'm feeling. I try to put myself in a place where I'm a little uncomfortable. And that's why I didn't plan anything beforehand this time, just to keep myself on my toes. I've been doing it so long that it just happens.
I don't think about "harsh" and "clean." Once we get the songs written, my job is to make the vocals fit well and make it feel like a song and be super cohesive. I wouldn't know how to tell somebody how to do that — I just do it. It's tough to talk about because it always changes. I grew up playing guitar, and I was never schooled or anything. I always had a good ear and figured it out — I just knew what I wanted to do, and I could make it happen. I'm like that with a lot of instruments. When I started playing keyboards, I just wanted to make it sound cool. That's how I am with vocals: I want to find ways to make the part unique or give it life. It used to be more like, "It's heavy, so I'll scream. It's soft, so I'll sing." Now I try to approach it like, "How can I make this interesting?" You have to go with your gut too.
COMA ECLIPTIC HIT NUMBER 12 ON THE BILLBOARD 200, WHICH IS THE BAND'S BEST CHART PLACEMENT TO DATE. HAVE YOU NOTICED ANY CHANGE SINCE THEN? HAS IT AFFECTED YOUR CAREER AT ALL?
You definitely know. The week first sales are pretty big for a band just because that creates a lot of leverage for you, especially for the management and booking agents for opportunities — [to show] what you're "worth." Album sales are so tough. From a band's perspective, you're looking more at concert attendance. The way I look at it, if the room's full and the promoter's not losing money every night, we're feeling good. The crowds have gotten better. We did the Colors tour last year, and that's a different type of thing. It was phenomenal — it was huge. You can't expect every tour to be that. But I don't think much about sales. We just kind of do our thing, man. I have two things I'm trying to achieve in life: to fulfill myself creatively and for my family to live. That's all I'm looking at. As everybody gets older, that's what you need to pay attention to.
YOUR FAMILY WAS OBVIOUSLY CRUCIAL TO THIS ALBUM SINCE YOU USED THEM AS A LYRICAL STARTING POINT. DO YOU THINK ABOUT YOUR FAMILY MORE NOW WHEN YOU'RE WRITING?
Totally. With a lot of my writing, there are little things I try to do where my son can look back and say, "I was a part of that." A lot of things people wouldn't even notice. On Parallax, it says "Folder 502" for the documents that get him out of the ship, and my son's birthday is 5/02. There are little things like that. He's been on a few records in little moments and things I've done. It's a big part of my life, and I want to document that in a way while being creative with it and making it cool.
HAS HAVING A SON CHANGED YOUR WRITING PROCESS?
I used to write between tours, but now almost all the stuff I write is on tour because that's when I have the most free time. When I'm at home, I don't want to be cooped up writing all day and night, not being able to experience his life. I've had to change a few things, and it's actually helped out on the road: getting music done and making my days more fulfilling.